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Ghana, Nigeria lead African challenge at Under-20 World Cup

29 May 2015, 06:54

Cape Town — While Africa's senior teams have struggled to make an impact at the World Cup, the juniors have had considerable success.

Ghana heads to the under-20 World Cup in New Zealand as a former winner and two-time runner-up. Nigeria, the under-17 World Cup champion, is replying on its young stars from two years ago to prove their worth at the next level.

Ghana and Nigeria are joined in New Zealand by Mali and Senegal, which were also among the top four teams at the African under-20 championship in March.

It's a source of burning frustration that an African nation has never reached the semifinals of a full World Cup. Yet in the under-20s, Ghana has made the final three times — winning one in 2009 — and the semifinals on two other occasions, most recently in 2013. Nigeria has played in two finals and made one other appearance in the semis. Even Mali has reached the semifinals once before.

This year, Nigeria appears the most likely to showcase Africa's young talent after beating host Senegal to win the continental under-20 championship.

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The Nigerian squad has a string of players who also won the under-17 World Cup in the United Arab Emirates in 2013, including captain and defender Musa Muhammed and forwards Kelechi Iheanacho and Taiwo Awoniyi.

"With the preparations we have put in, we want to be world champions in New Zealand," Awoniyi told the FIFA website recently.

The 18-year-old Iheanacho was the player of the tournament in the UAE and is at Premier League club Manchester City, a sure sign of his potential. Awoniyi is just 17 but a rising star. Nigeria also has defender Wilfred Ndidi of Belgian club Genk, midfielder Musa Yahaya of Tottenham and Ndidi's club teammate Moses Simon, a striker who has already made his debut for Nigeria's senior team.

Nigeria, the most successful country at under-17 level, will be tested right from the outset in its latest search for success at the under-20 tournament after being drawn in the same group as five-time winner Brazil. The countries meet on Monday.

Ghana missed out on the final of the African under-20s and has some catching up to do to reclaim its status as a top challenger.

Winners in 2009 and semifinalists in 2013, Ghana's 2015 hopes may hinge on attacking midfielders Clifford Aboagye of Spanish club Granada and Yaw Yeboah of Manchester City, the player of the tournament at the African championship.

The 20-year-old Aboagye will play in his second under-20 World Cup after being rated among the tournament's top three players when Ghana finished third in 2013.

"It is not every day that you get to play at such a level and if given the chance, you grab it and hope to go a step further," he said.

Ghana also has a tough early test, with record six-time champion Argentina in its group.

Senegal and Mali don't have the history of Nigeria and Ghana in the tournament, but Senegal's hard-fought journey to the African final two months ago gives it some hope of a good showing at its first under-20 world championship.

Mali was third in 1999 but has not won a game at the finals since 2003, providing an immediate target to aim for when it opens against Mexico.

- AP

Tags football

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